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Hodder History Expert Blog

Teaching the First World War as more than just Britain’s war
By Dean Evans
13 Mar
An article in the Guardian really got me thinking about how Anglo-centric my approach to teaching the War is, not because of some inflated patriotism or lack of knowledge, but because of tradition and the way our course is structured. In the article (by another teacher from Edinburgh) it claimed:
'The first world war is not really taught in Briish schools. Nearly all British children do learn about the 1914-1918 war, but only really as a war fought between two countries, Britain and Germany. What they learn can be summed up in one word: trenches.'

When I first read this back in January, I quickly made a stark change to my lesson plans on the topic, which is difficult since we even dub the course as ‘the trench project’ in my department. How much do I teach the world war as opposed to teaching trench life? The answer was quite startling and got me out of the comfortable rut where we follow a good scheme of work without constantly challenging it.

I stepped outside the mentality of ‘if it ain't broke, don’t fix it’ and realised the course was flawed. British students might never really understand why the 1914-1918 war is called the ‘First World War’. They are not taught the same depth about the campaigns that made it a world war: the war at sea, the 3 year onslaught that was the Eastern Front, the Balkans and most would be lucky to come across the impact of Lawrence of Arabia in the War. Of course we have a limited amount of time and a vast expanse of history to cover (especially under a new curriculum) but the War should not be reduced to the British Empire against the German aggressor.

Naturally, some subjects receive exhaustive focus such as the role of Generals or the Battle of the Somme because they offer great opportunities to stretch pupils’ understanding of key historical concept such as interpretation, causation and significance. Yet they can leave a strong Anglo-centric aftertaste. When Verdun is approached it can devolve into a summary note as to why the Battle of the Somme was necessary, rather than as an investigation into the French at war trying to save a cultural hotspot of little strategic value.

My fear is that my students might years later go ‘I didn’t know the Middle East were in the First World War!’ With that fear I tried to correct my lesson plans. I asked my class what they knew of the wider conflict and what countries they were curious about – an overwhelming number wanted to look to other countries involvement, especially outside Europe. Groups set off to report on the Middle East, the Eastern Front, the Balkans and Africa. They were able to draw upon the expansive knowledge of trench life and the Western Front to then compare to the other fronts and campaigns to see how universal the experience of war was across the globe. Finally I felt that I was on the way to correcting my years of isolation with only the British army as company. Hopefully the next 4 years will offer us more chances to investigate a global conflict, rather than an island’s story of war.
 
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